Boost the learning and experimentation mindset with Celebration Grid

What should we celebrate? Should we celebrate success? Or failure? Or both? The answer is not so simple. I believe it is clear why we should celebrate success, but what about failure?

You can often hear things like – “Create a safe-to-fail environment” or “It is OK to fail sometimes”.
So, does this mean that we should celebrate failure in some cases? We really need to understand the full extent here, because it is not that we want to concentrate on failure, but rather on learning. After all, failing without learning really provides no benefit.

We should celebrate learning, not successes or failures.

Agility enables us to approach and deal with complex problems. In order to find the best approach to a complex problem, you are well-advised to think empirically. This means you have to create transparency via the data available to you, inspect your findings and use the newly gained knowledge to adapt your next steps as necessary. Therefore, you should start experimenting and consciously generate data to enable you to inspect and adapt….and to learn.

 “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Albert Einstein

Based on the writings of Donald Reinertsen [Principles of Product Development Flow], learning is optimal when we have a 50/50 chance of succeeding or failing. In other words, when your experiments have a good chance of succeeding and a good chance of failing, they generate the most information for you to learn from. We learn the most when we can’t predict whether our experiments will lead to good or bad outcomes.  When all we do is repeat established practices, it is hard to know if we could do any better. Likewise, if all we do is make the same mistakes, then we’re not learning much either. Optimal learning happens somewhere in the middle.

We can be successful by following the best practices, but again we have not learned anything. Ok, sometimes a good practice fails and that will lead us to some learning. These types of learning occur rarely, and they are certainly less likely. The “trick” is to find the right balance between exploitation (best practices) and exploration (experiments).

Innovation is more usually successful when an autonomous unit is charged with exploring a disruptive, innovative idea. However, in the rare cases where organizations are able to combine exploration and exploitation, the successes are usually larger.”

Jens Maier, The Ambidextrous Organization

A good way to check the balance between exploitation and exploration within your team is to use Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 “Celebration Grid”. Celebration Grid can help us organize the talk around success (best practices), mistakes (bad practices, not to be repeated), and learning!

Celebration grid makes it very easy to identify and discuss behaviors versus outcomes and success versus failure.

As you can see in the illustration, the grid is divided into three columns: Mistakes, Experiments and Practices, and three rows: Success, Failure and Learning.

In terms of color coding, green and red obviously mean success and failure, grey is kind of neutral, and yellow represents learning.

Practice – if you do the right things in the right way, you are likely to be successful. Unfortunately, even the good practices sometimes fail. But that’s not necessarily a reflection of an underachieving team. It should be seen as an opportunity for learning, and to see how to avoid similar kinds of failures in the future.

Mistakes – usually lead to failure, but sometimes something that goes wrong can actually lead to success. And for as long as we reflect on our failures and try to understand them, we will learn from them and probably be successful later on.

Experiments – as you can see in the illustration above, both success and failure are green. Basically, experimentation means trying something new without knowing whether the outcome will be successful or not. There is a fiftyfifty chance of success: either you try and succeed or you try and fail. But regardless of the outcome, you always learn something new.

Celebration Grid in practice…

While working with one Scrum team with the intention to help them find room for improvement in their day-to-day work, I noticed that they were very focused on execution in each sprint. They mostly relied on practices and ways of working that were already well-known to them, without trying to find out if there was anything they could do differently. Also, quite often at the end of the sprint they would simply state that behind them is another sprint in which they spent very little or no time learning ( trying ) new things.

This whole situation gave me the idea to suggest that for the next retrospective we should change the format a bit and if that’s okay, I can do the facilitation. Fortunately, the team accepted my suggestion, which gave me the opportunity to introduce the Celebration Grid at the retrospective. Although it looks simple, it is a powerful tool to use for Sprint Retrospectives and it can give the team a  break from the ordinary “What went well?” and “What needs improvement?” retrospectives and changes the team mindset from concentrating on failure and success to the one of experimentation and learning.

At the beginning of the retrospective, I explained the Celebration Gird to the team and asked all team members to reflect on the mistakes they made, the good practices they used, and the experiments they tried during the sprint. Each team member did this independently and wrote down the insights on sticky notes ( one insight – one sticky note ). I encouraged the team not to overthink and suggested that they just start, and once they wrote the first note, more would follow. Also, the timebox for this activity was 10 minutes.

After the timebox expired, everyone shared their notes by placing them in the appropriate field on the Celebration Grid and briefly explaining them. Questions were welcome, but I tried to avoid deep discussions at this point. When all the team members had put their notes on the Celebration Grid, I invited the whole team to reflect on the big picture. Basically, I asked them questions like: How are the notes arranged? In which part of the grid are most of them? Did we make a lot of mistakes or did we stick to our familiar practices? Did we even undertake any experiments?

Using the Celebration Grid to face the current situation…

It’s interesting that what I assumed before the exercise would probably happen, actually happened in reality. We had some notes in the Mistakes and Practices columns, but there were no notes in the Experiments column. 

Having this in front of them, it was clear to the team that in the last sprint, they did not try anything new, they didn’t try a single experiment. At that moment, someone from the team said: “We all somehow feel this from sprint to sprint, but after this exercise it has become painfully clear.  We have to change something, we have to find the time and space for new things that will bring us learning.”

All other team members nodded in approval, which resulted in further discussion about what things we can try right away in the next sprint.

At the end of the retrospective, we chose one experiment that we wanted to try in the next sprint. In the next few retrospectives, we used the Celebration Grid again with the idea of reinforcing the way of thinking that it is necessary to find a balance between exploration ( doing experiments )  and exploitation ( using good practices ).

My takeaways as the facilitator…

All this experience of using the Celebration Grid in that team produced a few major takeaways for me as the facilitator, and one of the biggest is how, at first glance, simple tools used in the right way and at the right moment can be very powerful and can bring the initial trigger for a change. In this case, use of the Celebration Grid raised awareness that the team was stagnating and simply going from sprint to sprint. The retrospective in which the tool was first used encouraged the team to start discussions that would help them become aware of the current situation and look for room for improvement.  Finally, I would like to emphasize that once again, it was shown that the use of visualization is a very powerful thing to better understand the problems we face in our daily work.

Using the Celebration Grid in a team retrospective is just one way you can make advantage of it. As with everything, it’s up to you to be creative and get the most value out of it. So, it’s perfectly fine to use it, for example as a “living artefact” that remains permanently visible/available to the team, allowing team members to add notes at any time. In a way, it will be an open invitation to the team to do experiments and to have discussions surrounding what is posted on the grid. The Celebration Grid is meant to boost your experimentation, so do just that and feel free to experiment with it.

Remember, it’s all about continuous learning!  Progress is dependent on learning. Develop a learning mindset and follow the path to knowledge! Check out our Management 3.0 Foundation Workshop.

Author: Vladimir Kelava